The prophet Isaiah writes about what will come after Israel’s Assyrian adventure has ended. The “tree” that is the house of David has been cut down and taken into exile in Babylon. But the stump left behind will one day sprout life and grow in a new way-and a new kind of kingdom will result. Its king will be a different sort of king, one who does not judge by what his eyes see or his ears hear, but by his righteousness and equity. His kingdom will be a kind of new Eden, in which fierce predators live in peace with defenseless young animals and children play safely near danger. The earth will be completely in harmony with God, and the great new tree grown from the root of Jesse will draw all people to dwell there.
In writing to the church in Rome, Paul picks up this theme of harmony as the way of the kingdom founded on Jesus Christ, the branch sprouted from Jesse. What this means for the members of the young church is that they are called to unity, “with one voice” glorifying God, the Father of Christ. To achieve this harmony, they must “welcome one another [...] just as Christ has welcomed you.” Paul reminds them that Jesus came to serve the Jews in order that the Gentiles (the whole world) might receive salvation. Therefore, since they have been so received, they are to receive all others, not seeing themselves as exceptional.
John the Baptist, in the gospel reading from Matthew, reiterates this point. To the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him for baptism, he says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” He goes on to tell them that the tree not bearing good fruit will be chopped down and burned. John’s prophetic vision sees the corruption of the present “tree” that is seen here in Israel’s officials; his call to repentance is the warning to turn away from their set conceptions be open to the one who is coming, the one who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
We have little trouble looking at the Israelites in exile, at the young church in Rome, at the Jewish officials in Jesus’ time and seeing where they were wrong. But can we see our own wrongs? The call to repent this Advent season is extended to us as well. The reconciliation with us that God seeks, as well as the ministry of reconciliation to which we are called, demand that we should recognize our wrong behaviors and our wrong directions and reorient ourselves toward the way of Christ. This requires the hard work of coming to self-knowledge-and we probably know ourselves less well than we think.